The Turkey story

We have been here a week and Turkey remains a juxtaposition, a true transitional country. We left Istanbul via a ferry ride across the Sea of Marmara to Bandirma. The ferry itself is a modern catamaran, indistinguishable from ferries in BC or Scandinavia, really. So modern in fact that you cannot buy a proper Turkish coffee, but you can buy a cappuccino. Even the basic çay (tea) is unavailable in favour of Lipton. On the ferry, we were clearly in Europe.

Off the ferry, Bandirma is a provincial town, the type of dusty junction point you would not dream of stopping in. The countryside was pure Oklahoma, from the sunburned hills to the dusty dirt roads, even the military base. Nothing was modern, though, and we had clearly returned to Asia. The train ride ended abruptly, short of our end destination. To this day, we have no idea what the problem was, since the announcement was only made in Turkish. Indeed, we barely made it onto the shuttle buses they had waiting to take us to Izmir, since we did not understand the announcement and were left sitting on the train and slowly everybody else departed.

The ride into Izmir was, naturally, pure Asia. Chaos on the roads, clamour on the streets, shopkeepers sleeping outside their stores, waiting for nothing to happen. The city is a dump, having been razed and hastily rebuilt early in the 20th century. This was on account of Greek-Turkish fighting, something that has shaped our current location of Şirince significantly.

From Izmir south to Selçuk, you gradually get back to a more laid back European way of life, with sidewalk cafés, lots of beer, very friendly people and ample Greek ruins. Ephesus is the main ruin, and we spent a few hours exploring that, along with a couple of other major sites as well.

The food splits the continents as well. Here on the Aegean coast things have a Mediterranean feel, with pide (local pizza type), meat on a stick (a favourite all over the world) and lots of fresh vegetables. In Istanbul, we encountered a more Asian type of dining.

We had traditional Turkish coffee, made in a tiny shop in an alley by an old guy with a samovar. We sat on little wooden stools and sipped it while the world went by around us. The brew is rich, dense and probably as close to a proper hot chocolate as any coffee I’ve had. Sweet and decadent, and a nice dose of coffee sludge at the bottom of the cup of course.

We crossed to the Asian side, for dinner at Çiya, a place with an ever-rotating menu of regional cuisine from across the country. This includes stews with almonds and lamb, and we passed (regrettably) on a soup with beef and sour cherries. We also tracked down some kaymak, a yoghurt/cream type of confection, served with honeycomb. Boza is a beverage made from lightly fermented millet or bulgur wheat. It is served at Vefa Bozaçisi, a gorgeous establishment in Ottoman tile, slate tables and the air of bygone tradition. Across the street they were roasting chick peas, so we got a bag of those, too, still warm.

We are now in Şirince, a village of about 600 people. This is a retreat for us, with no TV and no distractions. We have a family of cats in our yard. The parents are completely in love and the two kittens like to stick their heads in our front door, then dash back outside as soon as they realize they’ve been noticed. We listen to goats by day and noisy dogs by night. It’s Ramadan, so they have drummers who go around town waking people up at four in the morning, so they can eat before the fast begins at dawn. When dawn does arrive, the muezzin blasts a loud call, we think directly into our eardrums. The town dogs howl a near-musical accompaniment to the muezzin’s call.

Şirince used to be Greek. Since Ephesus and probably before, this was a part of the Greek world. Indeed, the Greek island of Samos is only 1km offshore. If we had any room left on our visas for Europe (we don’t) we would visit. When Greece won autonomy from the Ottoman Empire, things between the Greeks and Turks deteriorated greatly. A series of wars ensued and reshaped the landscape. Şirince was a Greek village, in the hills above Selçuk and Ephesus. They do little here but tend olive groves and make fruit wines. Olive oil comes in plastic bottles formerly used for water or whatever, no label, freshly squeezed. Almost everything at the market comes from the immediate area. The fish, which come from the Aegean 15km away from here, have probably traveled the greatest distance.

After one of the wars, the Greeks of Şirince were swapped out for Turks who had been living in territory now held by Greece. So the town is now Turkish, but the 19th century architecture is Greek and nobody here has any roots further back than a generation or two. It’s a quiet place, good for getting work done. There is little to complain about. The weather is great, the food cheap and delicious and we leave our door open all day long, the only threat of intrusion from the aforementioned kittens. The biggest complaint is that we need to take the minibus to town to find our “beloved” Efes Dark, the only Turkish beer genuinely worth drinking twice. (We would not have touched the stuff in Bamberg).

I am writing a novel and Sun a screenplay. In the meantime, we will continue to post to the blog every so often, and of course the pictures we take will make it to our respective Facebook pages. And even if we wanted to, we won’t be able to post anything to Youtube, since that site is banned in Turkey. I’m serious. Look it up. Why? Because of flame wars between a bunch of 13-year-old Greeks and 13-year-old Turks. “Ataturk was gay”; “Oh yeah, well Greeks invented gay.” I kid you not, they banned the entire website because of sophomoric teenage flame wars. If there was ever any doubt that Turkey was an Asian country, this erases it.


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