The Turkish Life

Monday, April 12, 2021

Üç bayan on the loose on the Karia Yolu

Pretty but scratchy
"Three ladies, aren’t you scared??" the farmer asked incredulously as he pointed us in the direction of the gate that led out of his field and onto the dirt road climbing out of Bağlarözü bay.

Used to getting such responses to our hiking adventures in Turkey, we scoffed amongst ourselves at the question. But had we known what we'd be getting into before we finally reached his farm, we might indeed have been a little trepidatious.

Our first hike on the Carian Trail as it winds its way around the Datça Peninsula in southwestern Turkey started off easily in the beachside village of Palamutbükü, following rural roads past newly tilled fields with chamomile flowers growing wild on their edges. The signpost for Knidos pointed us up a trail into the scrabbly hills, and then down again onto a rocky path overlooking the watery gradient of blues where the Aegean Sea blends into the Mediterranean.

It all seemed so easy
at the start... 
Somewhere around the halfway point of what was supposed to be a 7.5-hour hike on "a mix of path and dirt road undulating around the coast," I was brought up short. We must have taken a wrong turn somewhere. But how? A rocky slope rose up steeply to one side of the narrow path; to the other side, there was only the sea. Pausing to contemplate the situation, I leaned on one hand against the rock and realized there were red and white paint stripes blazed onto the stone right next to my palm. So we were still on the trail after all. But there was nowhere for me to step next.

Right beyond my feet, the path ended in a steep drop-off to the sea, where the incoming tide crashed against a large, jagged rock, thwarting any thought of jumping into the surf. I sat down and scooted myself as far over the edge as I could go while still holding on, but my feet still dangled above the slippery rock. Even if I could make it down without twisting an ankle, or worse, we would be in the sea, with who-knows-how-many similar maneuvers ahead.

The path was supposed
to go above the shore,
not in the sea...
I recalled seeing a dirt road branching off up over the hills some ways back – maybe we could scramble our way up to reach it? Neither option seemed great, but we had to choose one, so up we went, trying to pick our way along loose scree and around unforgiving scrub. The undergrowth released aromas of rosemary, marjoram, and lavender while sharp, hard branches of other plants scratched into our legs.

Judging by the gap in photos on my camera roll, it was a good two hours before we emerged onto the surprised farmer's land and were gratefully reunited with the fickle trail markers and (at least for a while) a wide road. As the daylight began to wane, shapes started to emerge from the rocky landscape we now shared with a few herds of goats – remnants of the city walls of ancient Knidos, our destination at last.

Monday, February 1, 2021

Istanbul's 'First of the Month Church'

The ones for marriage are four lira; the rest are two lira," the older woman explained patiently as I surveyed the plastic takeout containers arrayed across the tables she and a few others were setting up on the sidewalk before the sun had even fully risen. Each small tub was filled with tiny colorful trinkets loosely connected in some way to the label on its lid: "araba için" (for car), "okul için" (for school), "bebek için" (for baby), and more than a dozen others.

Despite the early hour, a small trickle of people, mostly women, were already finding their way to this drab street corner around the back side of the sprawling İMÇ complex in Unkapanı, where high walls hid all but the cross atop the Ayın Biri Kilisesi.

I can say without a doubt that I've never run to church before, but not knowing whether this tradition that I'd heard about over the years would be continuing during pandemic times, I figured this way I would have gotten my morning exercise in regardless. So I pulled on long tights instead of my usual shorts, tossed a long-sleeved shirt, a T-shirt dress, and a scarf (just in case – having grown up Protestant and being nonreligious for decades, I'm never quite sure what the etiquette in an Orthodox church should be) in my running backpack, and headed out the door, catching glimpses of a rich violet and magenta sunrise between buildings in Beyoğlu and crossing the Atatürk Bridge over the Golden Horn with morning traffic on one side and fishermen lined up on the other.

The Ayın Biri Kilisesi, a Rum (Greek) Orthodox church, is best known – as its extremely literal nickname, "First of the Month Church," suggests – as a place to go on the first day of each month, to seek good fortune in some aspect(s) of your life. (Its "real" name is variously listed as Vefa Kilisesi, after the neighborhood, or Meryem Ana Kilisesi, based on one story of its origin, in which the Virgin Mary appeared in a dream to an Albanian Orthodox girl and told her that there was a holy spring underneath her family's garden and that a church should be built there.) As with many such folk traditions, actual religiosity seems to be no barrier to participation, with members of the majority Muslim population joining the city's few remaining Christians. After the year we've all had, I too figured any potential source of luck was worth giving a try.

After slipping my more-modest change of clothes on over my running kit, I selected five gold-hued trinkets from the tables outside the church, each attached to a short, brightly colored ribbon with a small safety pin: a hamsa/Hand of Fatima, başarı için (for success); a dragonfly, kariyer için (for career); a lock and key, huzur mutluluk için (for serenity and happiness); a heart, sağlık için (for health); and a slightly different heart, aşk için (for love).

Though I'm told the first-of-the-month ritual can draw hours-long lines when it fall on a (non-lockdown!) Sunday, on this Monday morning, the courtyard enclosed by the church's walls was serene. A handful of visitors sat on benches, chatting and drinking tea alongside some scattered gravestones and column capitals, while others lit candles inside a cabin-like building, or waited to get into the main church. One man walked around handing out candy, which I later learned is a show of gratitude displayed by someone whose wish made previously at Ayın Biri had been granted. 

Icons adorned the walls inside the small but prettily decorated and lovingly tended church, where a slightly bewildering array of rituals awaited. (Fortunately, I ran into a friend who'd visited previously and could provide some guidance.) From one booth, a man offered small keys for four lira each. Next were candles lined up on a stand with a slot for donations. In the corner, a priest asked me my name, then placed a heavy embroidered cloth over my head and intoned some almost inaudible words. Here and in a small chamber downstairs that also houses a holy spring said to date to the early 1700s, people paused before icons hanging on the walls. Holding up their little keys, they mimed the motion of unlocking each side of the cabinets around the images, or tracing their outlines. My nominally Catholic friend suggested I cross myself with each trinket as I moved along the line, which I did, crossing the one representing the wish I most want fulfilled in front of a few different icons for good measure.

If any of my wishes come true, I'll do as tradition holds I should and return the "blessed" key to the church, along with sweets to share with those who haven't been so lucky yet.

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Epiphany on the Golden Horn

The bell began ringing out at 12:30 pm sharp, its sound carrying to the water's edge from an unseen church somewhere behind a cacophony of buildings in various states of (dis)repair. No gentle tinkle but an effortful pealing, it continued for a full five minutes as the assembled crowd shuffled a bit impatiently. As its clanking ebbed away, voices murmuring in both Turkish and Greek came to the fore and police swept the spectators to the sidelines. The Patriarch was arriving.

Every year on 6 January, Istanbul's small remaining Greek Orthodox community celebrates Epiphany, the baptism of Jesus – a day they call Theophany – at the Church of St. George in the Fener neighborhood along the Golden Horn. Following what I'm told is always a lengthy mass, the congregation processed to the nearby waterfront, where they joined the awaiting press cadre, at least one Turkish tour group, and assorted other bystanders as a drone circled overhead and small idling boats churned up the waters.

On a pier across a short stretch of water, two men in swimming briefs paced, stretched, and swung their arms. All the while they each kept a keen eye on His All-Holiness Bartholomew I, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, as the elderly archbishop slowly ascended a platform set up for the occasion, topped with a scroll on a stand.

My position in the crowd meant I couldn't see the movement of the Patriarch's hand, so before I knew it, the two men were in the water, racing to be the first to retrieve the wooden cross that His Holiness had tossed in as per tradition. Pointing my camera in their general direction, I clicked as fast as I could until after one had reached the cross, kissed it, and held it triumphantly aloft. It was all over so quickly; as a woman next to me laughed to her friend afterwards, "I don't even know what I took pictures of!" 

Similar ceremonies were prevented in Greece this year due to the coronavirus pandemic – in Thessaloniki, police and coast guard patrolled the waterfront to prevent them, according to the Associated Press – and both the crowds and the number of participants in Istanbul were much diminished. (Last year's event drew some 30 swimmers on a frigid day, many of whom had traveled from Greece or other Orthodox countries.) But I was pleased to have finally (after all these years!) witnessed this distinctive event, getting my renewed vows to Try More New ThingsTM (2021-Style, i.e. locally) and resurrect this long-moribund blog off to a good start, at least for now...

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Outdoor dining is dead, long live outdoor dining

I'd been eyeing the roadside kebab shop for a while, as there seemed to be a steady stream of customers whenever I walked by after my physiotherapy sessions. Then, quite suddenly, all indoor *and* outdoor seating at restaurants and cafes was banned once again in Turkey as a coronavirus prevention measure. Takeaway, however, was still allowed. On this particular day, I was starving, having missed lunch; the weather was still mild, despite it being early December; and I figured I could furtively scarf down a dürüm in a couple of minutes while lingering on the street corner out front.

But I hadn't given Turkish ingenuity and hospitality enough credit.

No sooner had I approached the server standing outside the door and ordered my Adana dürüm (acılı, tabii ki, ama domatessiz lütfen) than he had swooped up a piece of cardboard and placed it just so on the edge of what used to be the shop's outdoor-dining area. (Can't sit on the cold ground, your reproductive organs might freeze.) 

As I sat on my cardboard-covered perch, eating my dürüm and sipping my ayran, situated at a safe distance away from other customers doing likewise, I noticed there were people sitting in the cars parked in front of the shop. They were eating their kebabs as the server dashed back and forth to their car windows to deliver post-meal tea and retrieve the empty glasses. It was almost like being at an American drive-in.

Restaurants, cafes, and bars are suffering heavily during these shutdowns, to be sure. But these examples of resourcefulness are cheering in their small way. A neighborhood bar is packaging up its cocktails to go and bottling its mixers for sale. The owners of a popular meyhane have opened a takeaway meze shop and even deliver locally by bicycle. One street in Karaköy is doing its best impression of a European Christmas market, the scent of cloves and cinnamon drawing passersby to long tables outside bar-restaurants that are selling cups of mulled wine and slices of cake to take in hand as you stroll. It's something I've not really seen in Istanbul before, but a new tradition I certainly wouldn't mind seeing endure after the pandemic is (inşallah) behind us next winter.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Social solidarity amid COVID-19: Ways to help the people who need it most

Image via New Economy Coalition
I read a comment recently about the coronavirus pandemic that really resonated with me: We may all be in the same storm, but we're not all in the same boat.

Every day, it seems, I read (and sometimes write) about how this disease and its wide-ranging impacts are laying bare long-standing inequities in our societies, about the workers who can't afford to stay home, the refugees who don't have a home to stay in, the women for whom home in the most dangerous place, the 30 million people who have lost their jobs in the U.S. alone.

It's a stark reminder that as fear, loneliness, and insecurity batter us all, some of our vessels are definitely more seaworthy than others.

For those of us fortunate enough to be safe, employed, and in good health right now, I've compiled this very incomplete list of ways to help those who aren't. If you're an American who's received the $1,200 stimulus check and doesn't need that financial assistance, I humbly suggest joining me in donating all or part of that as a way to start.

And please do reach out to propose any recommended additions to this list.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Pide to the people

"Sıcak sıcak sıcaaaaak!!!!"

"Var mı, pide isteyen?!?!"

Since Turkey began weekend lockdowns in its large cities earlier this month – fully confining everyone except certain essential workers to their homes – normally raucous Istanbul has been eerily quiet on Saturdays and Sundays. No matter how late of a lie in I indulge myself with (because really, what's the point of getting out of bed when you can't leave the apartment?), the silence of the streets outside hangs heavily, as if the whole world had vanished while I slept.

Then it happens. The low thrum of a small van inching its way down the street, followed by the crackle of a portable speaker, or an unamplified, full-throated cry. "Geldi geldi geldi!!!!"

Sometimes it's just one voice, other times a competing cacophony. Either way, the sounds break the silence, and the spell that seems to have been cast on the neighborhood. When I pop my head out the window, faces up and down the street mirror my own. The old, infirm, or simply weary lift baskets over their windowsill or balcony railing, lower them on a rope, and wait. The rest stuff a few coins in pockets, slip on some shoes (what are those again?), and rush out the door, not wanting to miss the highlight (OK, the only event) of the day: bread delivery time.

For many Turks, a meal without bread is unthinkable. An estimated 20 million loaves are sold daily in Istanbul (population 16 million) alone. I've seen Turkish friends refuse to eat breakfast because there was no fresh bread, only the slices left over from the day before. A Turkish colleague told our WhatsApp group that even during the 1980 military coup, when tanks patrolled the city’s empty streets, bread was distributed in large trucks to each house or apartment.

So certainly a little thing like a global pandemic wasn't going to keep the halk from their ekmek. The Interior Ministry's curfew order included an exemption allowing people to leave their homes to walk to their nearest bakery. Politicians jostled to be the heroes providing bread to the cooped-up masses, posting videos on social media with soothing footage of loaves coming out of ovens and being brought to homes. And local bakeries took to the streets with their delivery vans.

I'll be honest – even as starved for activity and interaction as I am on weekends, the standard white loaves, more air than bread, weren't going to entice me to run after the bakery van. But this weekend, their siren call became very beguiling, with the addition to their offerings of the Ramazan pidesi. This pillowy flatbread is made during the holy month of Ramadan, when observant Muslims abstain from food and drink during daylight hours, then sit down to a fast-breaking meal called iftar at sunset.

Even for the non-religious, the sight of people coming together each evening, whether at huge tables set up by the municipality or on small stools set up around a newspaper-covered folding table, creates a sense of shared urban conviviality. Of course in 2020, coming together is tehlikeli ve yasaktır, as is jostling in front of the fırın to buy a fresh-out-of-the-oven pide in the last possible minutes before iftar so it's still piping-hot at fast-breaking time.

On weekends, then, buying pide from the bread van is about as close as we can come to a communal experience. So I wasn't going to miss out on that. And if a bread that's usually torn into pieces and shared has to be eaten by one person while it's still warm and at its tastiest, well, it's the kind of year in which sacrifices must be made. But only one pide a day, no matter how many times the vans cruise down my street. Even in a pandemic, you have to draw the line somewhere.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

A Lycian Way mini-adventure: Rest day in Kemer

Happy toes in the sand
You know you're in an Antalya beach resort when... your friend leaves her wallet on the minibus and you're alerted to this fact by your Turkish fellow passengers calling out not "Abla" or "Hanımefendi" or "Bayan" or even "Hey lady" but "Devushka! Devushka!"

In case it wasn't already clear from the Cyrillic signs on shops selling fur coats and skimpy bathing suits, that was a pretty good hint that the holiday town of Kemer is known as a destination for Russian tourists. And though I try not to be overly judgmental, it was hard to escape the feeling that they'd given all foreign visitors a pretty bad rap.

Cheers to new adventures
There were exceptions, of course -- the friendly, chatty hunter who had just come down from Tahtalı Dağı and showed us photos of the cave where he'd set up the blackened çaydanlık that he'd hauled up to the summit in his backpack comes to mind.

But on the whole, we received the surliest welcome in Kemer that I've ever experienced in famously hospitable Turkey -- from brusquely impatient waiters to the hotel staff pounding on our door and following us down the hallway to repeatedly demand payment up front for our room. One woman I sat next to on a bus softened noticably when she found out I was American, and not Russian. Finally! A country with an even worse international reputation than my own.

Last sunrise in Lycia (for now)
Though Kemer's beautiful long stretch of both sand and pebble beaches was whipped by wind in the afternoon and marred by cat-calling magandas in the early evening, our little band of hikers was happy to trade our boots for sandals, sit in the sun, and finally make a proper toast to adventures just had, and those yet to come.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

A Lycian Way mini-adventure, day 5: Tekirova to....?

Poppies and a misty mountain
Fortified after yesterday's exertions with börek and eggs at a local pastane, we picked up the trail again (after plodding across none-too-memorable Tekirova) on a service road behind the sprawling Rixos hotel, whose waterpark and shabby outlying buildings butt up right against the woodlands on the outskirts of town.

It was an inauspicious start to the day's hike, but after a short jaunt through sparse forest, across a campground/equestrian center, and past some flower-dappled fields backdropped by a mist-shrouded Tahtalı Dağı, we were back on favorite territory: curving coastal paths above the Mediterranean Sea, more slate blue than turquoise on this overcast morning, but beautiful nonetheless.

Lovely Phaselis
The promise of visiting the ruins of Phaselis had been a major motivation to get our tired legs moving once again, though having not been to the site in nearly five years, I'll admit I feared for the worst. Would it be blighted by garish concession stands, filled with ham-fisted restorations, or marred by new roads? Thankfully, the remains of this ancient maritime city were exactly as I remembered: an evocative series of arches and tombs and column capitals half-hidden away in the woods, centered around a wide paved-stone road leading to the sea.

There weren't many other visitors at Phaselis when we passed through, but those who were there seemed to be having so much fun, their joy was infectious: a young pair faux-fencing with sticks, a Turkish woman flamboyantly play-acting on the stage of the ancient theater, a group of tourists arraying themselves on the theater steps for cheesy-album-cover-style photos.

Seaside serenity
We took a few band photos of our own on the dramatic, volcanic-rock-like cliffs past Phaselis, then lost the trail in a maze of low brush before deciding to break for lunch overlooking the sea, across a small bay from the town of Çamyuva. Continuing on through a predictably garbage-ridden picnic area, we followed an asphalt road to the main highway, where the trail waymarks led -- in very Hiking Istanbul-esque fashion -- through a graffitied underpass and across a large construction site where a fresh pair of tunnels emerged from the hillside.

What our guidebook described as a forest track seemed to be en route to being turned into forest road, with rocks piled underfoot and some new crash barriers alongside. With one member of our party hobbled by painful blisters, we stood little chance of reaching the next village by nightfall, and after climbing up this unappealing series of switchbacks for about 45 minutes, we decided it wasn't worth continuing on.

Unlovely construction
We hiked back down, crossed through the construction site and the underpass again, and ended our hiking adventure -- this installment, at least! -- hailing a minibus by the side of the highway.

Four-and-a-half Lycian Way segments down, just 24 ½ more on to go on future excursions before I can get the trail's waymark tattooed on my arm. Kidding. Kinda.

Friday, April 21, 2017

A Lycian Way mini-adventure, day 4: Çıralı to Tekirova

Tired as my legs were, I nearly broke into a run when I spotted the yellow signpost in the distance, at the end of yet another field of rough red rocks. But when I reached the post, my heart sank. We had already been walking for nine hours on what we'd been led to believe was a hike of about that length, the daylight was starting to wane, and if the yellow sign was correct, we still had more than three hours to go to reach the next town.

Can't get enough of that
turquoise water
We'd started out the day from Çıralı in high spirits, if a bit leery of the dark clouds roaming across the sky. A short climb above the seafront took us on a route leading up and down a series of small coves and the rocky cliffs overlooking their beaches, each vista seemingly more photo-worthy than the last. Turning inland brought us first across the exposed, drab, rocky remains of old mining operations, then into an overgrown meadow that hid any official trail markers, leaving only other hikers' rock cairns to follow through a maze of bushes and tall grasses.

Then we climbed and climbed over rocky slopes where hardy flowers bloomed between the stones, going higher and higher until stopping for a rest at one point, I turned around to be awestruck by the vast panorama below, spreading out to the ocean and those little coves we'd visited hours before, each inch of the view earned by our calloused feet and straining muscles.

Hardy and beautiful flowers
Invigorated by the sight of how far we'd come, we marched forward until the pine-needle-strewn paths turned again into rocky outcroppings and the time we'd allotted for the hike passed without any indication that we might be nearing its end.

Night started to fall not long after we came across the yellow sign, and the question of whether it would be more dangerous to continue on in the dark, make a a treacherous beeline down a steep ravine to the distant highway that was the only sign of civilization in sight, or try to find shelter (since we were carrying none of our own) in the woods for the night shadowed our every footstep.

We started all the way down there
at sea level
I tried to quicken my pace even as I felt my feet begin to stumble from fatigue, the red-and-white slashes of paint on rocks alongside the trail becoming harder and harder to see as the light faded further. Digging out extra batteries for one of two failing flashlights, we continued on in the dark, tracing the uneven path and searching for trail markers with our narrow beam of light.

It was hard to know if minutes had passed, or hours, but eventually the hum of cars on the distant highway had started to seem louder -- or was it just our weary minds' wishful thinking? Then the flashlight's beam caught a piece of styrofoam on the ground, then a wire fence, then an electric pylon, then finally, mercifully, a dirt road. Never had I been so happy to see the signs of development encroaching on nature.

So damn many rocks
For our final hours in the dark, I'd driven myself forward with thoughts of a cheeseburger, a giant plate of fries, and a cold beer (if not three). But by the time the dirt road turned into an asphalt one and reached town, it was past 10pm, too late to buy alcohol from the shop, and the only restaurant within crawling distance was dry. We fell upon our kebabs and pide like a pack of wolves on their prey and toasted our safe arrival with soda and ayran.

Tomorrow, onward to Roman Bridge?

Thursday, April 20, 2017

A Lycian Way mini-adventure, day 3: Adrasan to Çıralı

Green hills above Adrasan
The path out of Adrasan rose up above the greenhouse-dotted valley, across high meadows bright with flowers and fresh green shoots of grass, past a shepherd perched on a rock under a tree as his small flock grazed nearby, and alongside a rough shack where an enterprising local had set up shop selling fresh-squeezed orange juice to thirsty hikers.

After these bucolic scenes, the trail took a turn for the monotonous as it wound up into rocky forest, pretty but with little to differentiate one stretch from the next. The remnants of ancient Phoinikous, which we'd eagerly noted in our guidebook as something to make up for the lack of sea views on this inland segment of the Lycian Way, failed to reveal themselves amongst the craggy natural stones scattered all over the hillside.

Strange trees and rock cairn
Then the forest became thicker and lower, closing in on us almost jungle-like, cutting off phone and GPS signals and restricting our vision to no more than a few meters as the narrow path zigzagged through unfamiliar trees with twisted reddish trunks that felt as smooth and cold as carved and polished wood. It was easy to imagine ourselves in some kind of fairytale, or perhaps -- remembering the disquieting howls we'd heard earlier from an unseen male voice, or catching a glimpse of a dark green snake slithering across our path -- a darker kind of fable.

Sarcophagus in ancient city of Olympos
Following a long descent, the trees around us opened up once again and we emerged into the ruins of ancient Olympos like explorers stumbling upon a lost city (never mind the parking lot and ticket booths across the river). Moss grew over the inscriptions and carved reliefs on heavy sarcophagi and stone walls seemed to melt into the surrounding greenery and soil. We walked under sturdy arches and through a crumbling theater half reclaimed by the landscape, marveling at how such historical richness could be left in such glorious disarray.

Olympos beach at dusk
Just when we thought we'd reached the end of the site and the seafront beyond where our path should continue... we ran up against a fence. Laden as we were with our heavy packs and having already walked for 16 kilometers, backtracking was not an option worth considering. So like the seasoned urban hikers we are, over the fence we went -- onto the gleaming white stones of Olympos beach, the long sweeping curve of the sea framed by dramatic cliffs catching the last gleams cast by the setting sun.

Tomorrow, onward to Tekirova!