Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Turkish Time Machine

To A Friend's Honor

The bay was sparkling silver in the hazy dusk; a ship merged with a black-blue hill in the distance and disappeared into its dark folds. Alsancak was starting to light up as night fell, and the music inside the Karisma Bar and Cafe changed to a mix of techno and belly dancing.

Neco prodded me, 'What you t'ink, Chrystyna?'

I glanced at him and flashed him a guilty grin. I was thinking about how it would be Oliver sitting across from me in just 13 weeks and I would introduce him to raki -- lion's milk -- a mixture of anise liquor and water. I didn't want to tell Neco this because I had been talking about Oliver all day as things reminded me of him (which was everything). Then it hit me and my reply was true and honest. 'I'm thinking, Holy Moley, I'm in Turkey! How did I get here?'

My new friend, playing tour guide, was pleased with the answer. "Guzel, madame?"

"Evet. Chok guzel." Yes. Very good. I raised my glass to clink with his. "Sherif, arkadash." To your honor, my good friend.

The dictionary lay between us -- I've already begun to wear it down and there are notes scribbled in every blank space between the covers and title pages. Neco speaks about as much English as I speak Spanish -- very little, but enough to be understood with the help of charade talents. My Turkish, on the other hand, is raw. But its music and rhythm are beginning to seep into me. And this country has started to grow on me -- like the barnacle on a whale. There's no way I could ever find where it grows and no way for me to remove it.

Some places are meant to fall in love with instantly: Ireland, western Austria, Cinque Terre in Italy, Nova Scotia, northern California. It takes very little for me to feel at home in those places. Other places require an acclimation period: Antwerp, Belgium; Ukraine, Toronto, England and Izmir. I may fall in love with other places in Turkey, but Izmir was a battle.

The next day was my day off. Neco called me shortly after lunch and we met at the corner of my block (he lives only six blocks from me). We were on our way to check out the thermal bath at Balcova.

It was a rare day off for him. Like most working Turks, he's on the job twelve to sixteen hours a day, seven days a week. For the equivalent of $10 per DAY. Neco (pronounced Neh-jo) is a waiter at the cafe I frequent. Next door, is Ahmed's shoe shop and Ahmed himself pops out to have cay (tea) with me to discuss his hippie days in America when he lived in West Viriginia. His daughter, Tugba (Arabic for 'heaven'), is taking me on a girl's night out to Karsheka (across the bay by ferry) this Saturday. Among them, I have made good friends and placed myself into good hands. Inshallah.

The bus to Balcova was hot and dusty, just like the outdoors. To carry on a conversation with Neco requires patience and time. The smallest item of discussion can take up to a half hour to clarify, but it's always done with a mixture of good humor and frequent apologies on both ends. We often burst out laughing because belaboring a point simply becomes comical. Neco has mentioned that I'm very good at guessing what he means and I remind him that I get paid to do that every day.

When we finally reached the top of the hill of the small city, we stepped through the gates of the spa. The quiet hit me like a rock from nowhere. I stopped in mid-stride and looked at Neco with wondernment: all I heard were birds and the careless breeze playing with the leaves of the palm trees. Flowers were bursting in blooms of reds and pinks, whites and lavendar. And then I saw it: It was the most shocking and beautiful sight to my eyes and I wish I could tell you the name of the tree, but I haven't a clue yet. Like an apple or a cherry tree, but more delicate in blossoms and branch, this tree burst into a fire of blue violet. Against the dusty, sage-green hills, it was a celebration to life, fanning out like the Japanese trees we used to paint with plastic straws and ink in grade school.

"Anybody can come here?" I asked as we proceeded to the domed building housing the spa and hospital.

"Yes, of course. No problem," Neco replied, sounding just like the students reading out of their books in yesterday's class. ("I'm cold. Could you close the door please?" "Yes, of course. No problem.")

I picked up a price list for the spa; our purpose was to see as much as possible in and around Izmir so that I could get to these places on my own later. Neco, afterall, must follow the money and go to Bodrum for the tourist season in a few weeks. However, there was certainly time for a bit of r&r and coffee. We climbed the terrace gardens, gradually making our way to the umbrellas and tables we saw above us. However, when we were level with the outdoor patio, I gasped. Before us spread a little area of stubby olive trees, umbrellas and a haven of straw kilims and huge pillows. Before various sets of pillows were short coffee tables and a small group of people scattered about, sipping water or coffees; cay served in the delicate flute glasses; and wine.

"You want to sit here," Neco said in response to my gaping mouth. I nodded enthusiastically and we found a place where we could flop down. A lazy hour passed with quiet conversation and private reflection. Before us, the hills climbed above our umbrellas, disappearing behind the fringes.

After Balcova, we went to Konak in Izmir, which is a stretch of neighborhood on the sea. We walked through Basmane, then into Fuar where we wandered into the large but depressed Kultur Park. It's an attempt at a small scale Central Park, but sadly deserted and the cafes are heavily overpriced. I realized how lucky I am to live in Serinyer -- away from the tourist traps and inflated prices.

We were exhausted by six and grabbed another hot, dusty bus back to Serinyer. I never believed I would be happy to see my streets again, but I was. Back home, after kissing each other's cheeks twice, the way good friends do in Turkey (and Austria, for that matter), I threw myself on the couch, opened a bottle of red wine and dug into some cold chicken and a fresh shepherd's salad. It had been the perfect day. And I was pleased to be discovering parts of this city...

Old Smyrna: A Walk Between the Rich and Poor

As you may or may not know, Izmir used to be Greek Smyrna. A port town, it holds four million-plus people. It is simply enormous. And it's crumbly, economically weak (you are either rich or you are poor), and it contains secret places. Places probably not wise to walk around in as a foreign woman.

But I wanted to explore and so I made a long walk to the east of my neighborhood into Buca. Ancient, crumbling walls and houses, where the doors were sunk half a meter below the pavement, took me by surprise. This was the abandoned section where the Greeks used to live. An American-style cafe, with its warped and peeling English sign, was deserted eons ago but way after 1921 when the Greeks were pushed out of Turkey.

There were old stone fountains, and statues of Ataturk everywhere -- the father of Turkey -- usually surrounded by children holding his hand, or bronze youngsters gathered around his likeness, reading books. The parks I passed were sad excuses for a getaway in the city. Granted, there are some trees, but they are mostly paved squares with a cafe or two dotting the little landscape and blaring Turkish music (which isn't that bad, but when you want peace and quiet...).

As I walked by delipadated shops and sad, dark and dingy markets, I felt a heavy blanket of stares fall on me. There were times I grew nervous.. especially when cars brushed close by the sidewalk, blaring their horns at me -- the drivers' and passengers' heads turned to see who I am as they pass by. That was Buca...
On my way to Kemer, through Bucabalcova, I was struck with more poverty. This time, I walked toward the 'Turkish Delight Hill' -- the one that looks like a giant's pile of the sweets - and was struck by the colors again as the morning sun lit up the houses and clay-tiled roofs. But below me, from the uneven and high pavements, were the stone steps leading into the alleyways and roadways of the neighborhood. It reminded me a little of how the villages in Cinque Terre were laid out but dustier and dirtier. Pollution is a huge problem and there is no recycling. The problem with trash is an altogether separate piece I will have to write about (as well as the cats, rats and dogs).

Again, in Bucabalcova, I was stared at, honked at, whistled at. I turned the corner at the cemetery (currently being torn up to make a road, old marble tombs have been raided, robbed and left to waste until the bulldozers come to burry them over). Two girls with nappy hair and dusty, shabby clothes, were totting two toddlers. They followed me with shy smiles, and finally asked me, "English?" I stopped and smiled back at them. They were the same street urchins from Dickens. One girl made the international hand gesture for begging for money. I gave them some loose coins I had... enough for two loaves of bread and vegetables. And then I wanted to save them all... It was so hard and so sad.

I took the bus back because I was sick of the attention I was drawing. It's one thing to be followed by beggar children and another to simply be eyed up and down as if you are the next cow on the chopping block.

When I returned to Serinyer, I told Neco, Ahmed and Tu𢡠about my experiences. That was when Neco 'quit' his job for two days and insisted on showing me nicer places.

Because of his experiences in travel and his love for history, philosophy and politics, Ahmed is able to give me not only the Turkish perspective of things (I spend hours asking questions and obliterating stereotypes in the process), he also offers me an bird's eye view regarding Turkey's past. Learning about Turkey's present -- or trying to understand it -- is impossible without the history lessons. As for its future... there's a political cartoonist who said, "It has a past. You can't have expect to have everything." It was said about Greece, but I am learning through books and discussions that there is very, very little difference between the two cultures. They lived together for over 600 years and have become so mish-mashed that to try and find the root of one or the other is like trying to untangle the roots of a 600-year-old tree.

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