Prosecards from the Edge (of a Continent)

A running commentary on my life in Izmir, Turkey...and other thoughts.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Island Sojourn – Part 1

The end of Ramadan arrived almost before I had time to realize that Ramadan had started, I had been so totally consumed I with the great, sucking black hole that is my job. Ramadan ends with the Seker Bayram, a 3-day holiday if it falls during the week. If it falls on the weekend, as it did this year, you’re pretty much out of luck, getting only get one extra day – but I figure one day is better than no day, since the two-day variety weekend doesn’t seem to be good for much except dropping dead, keeping my liver in a state of numb submission, and occasionally cleaning the house. With three days, I mused, I might actually be able to do something…maybe even go somewhere.

This last thought tickled the back of my mind long enough that eventually we decided to do something about it. Selected destination: the nearby island of Lesbos (Greece), two hours' ferry ride from the Turkish town of Foca, which is about an hour’s drive from Izmir. We thought it might be interesting to see how the other half lives. It’s fascinating, when you think of it – an hour’s ferry ride separating Asia from Europe, Islam from Christianity. And yet for all the differences, they are all Mediterranean people, united by weather and food and “the Mediterranean temperament”. Which would be most striking, I wondered…the differences or the similarities?

We departed early Friday morning while the morning was still fresh, taking a city bus to the main road where we waited for the bus to Foca. It is generally a pretty colorless place, this main road – full of exhaust-spewing vehicles and devoid of anything that could pass as scenic. But that morning, the first day after the fasting of Ramadan had ended, there was a sense of excitement in the air. It was almost a pleasure to stand there on that stretch of sidewalk and watch the people go rushing by on their holiday-morning runs to the butcher, the baker (didn’t see any candlestick makers, though). Finally able to go buy – and eat – food during daylight hours, people thronged the streets. There was a maddening scent of butter and baked goods on the air; the bakeries were doing brisk business. A stone’s throw from our bus stop, a bakery with fresh börek was drawing a crowd that stretched ten meters down the sidewalk. Over the tops of people’s heads I could see the fresh, doughy pastry with its cheese and spinach filling emerging from the clay oven and being whisked straight to the counter, where a gray-haired man was carving it into rough chunks with a dull knife and selling it by the kilo. The scene gave me a good idea of what a lynching would be like, only this was more benevolent. The börek didn’t stand a chance against clawing, reaching talons of the crowd. That much interest is generally a good indicator that whatever’s going is good, so I elbowed Levent into joining the throng while I kept eyes peeled for the bus. It took an eternity and a certain amount of pummeling for him to make it to the counter, but eventually he emerged triumphant with a bag full of the steaming hot, dreamily light and lovely pastry.

The timing was magnificent: my teeth had scarcely said hello to the first piece of pastry when our bus roared up and we hopped on. Ensconced in our seats, we gorged ourselves like starving refugees, managing to consume nearly a kilo between the two of us (oh what a frightening thought).

Arriving in Foca, the usual ‘Mediterranean experience’ ensued. Our intention was to take the Friday morning ferry to Lesbos and return via the Sunday evening ferry at 6:00 p.m. It would have made for a late-ish return home on a school night, but I’d decided I could live with it. But as Levent went to get the tickets, the vaguely testy-looking chap in the kiosk looked up from his newspaper and informed us that the return from Lesbos had been arbitrarily (my word, not his) changed to 9:00 pm. This, despite the fact that both the website for the ferry company and the ferry company’s telephone operators assured us that the return would be at 6:00! This was a significant setback. A 9:00 pm departure would mean an 11:00 pm arrival in Foca. Even assuming that we could get from Foca to Izmir at 11:00 (probably later) p.m. on Sunday, it would mean not getting home until nearly midnight, which was far too late for a school night. But more to the point: there were simply no buses from Foca to Izmir at that time of the night, which would mean a night in Foca and missing at least part of a day of work the following day. Levent’s attempts to get more explanations out of the kiosk guy produced more irritation and the distinct impression that we were preventing him from reading his newspaper.

Just as we were trying to remember what Plan B was, a tour guide materialized out of nowhere proffering chocolate. (This was, after all, Seker Bayram, when the tradition is to offer chocolate and other sweets to family and friends.) No matter that the guide mistakenly thought that we were part of her group; we were happy to take the chocolate as a consolation prize after watching our holiday plans vanish into thin air. Between bites, the matter of the impossibly late return came up, and she offered to take us back to Izmir with her tour group – and even drop us off in our neighborhood. Wonderful! Problem solved! Plan A rescued.

Punctuality and organization: two things the Germans are very good at, and the people of the more southern climes, well, generally not. To board the ferry, you have to first go through the Customs building for passport control at the port. There were approximately two hundred people elbowing each other to board the ferry, and one passport checker. At some point I calculated the average wait time at thirty seconds per person. Doesn’t sound like much until you multiply it by 200. True to form, the passport checking process didn’t begin until 15 minutes before departure, and continued until nearly an hour after scheduled departure time. Inside the building, which was painted a sickly shade of green and smelled vaguely of mold and a hint of bleach, we inched down a narrow corridor and (eventually) into an office on the left. It would have been child's play to simply keep going down the corridor unnoticed and get on the ship without bothering with passport control, but we are upright citizens.

We pushed and jostled down the hall at a snail’s pace. The jangle of cell phones and people shouting into them was deafening – on Seker Bayram, every family member is more or less obligated to get in touch with every other family member – and Turkish families are not small. I started to feel conspicuous because my phone wasn’t ringing. Several years later, we made it into the passport office. Inside, a bare dangling light bulb illuminated a Spartan white-walled office with one dangling bare light bulb. A small mustachioed man sat at a desk sans computer, marking mysterious symbols onto long lists and rubber-stamping passports with a great flourish. Beside him stood a clean-shaven man in an official-looking uniform, whose function appeared to be to open each passport to the appropriate place and hand it to the man at the desk. After mustachioed man had marked his list and rubber-stamped the passport, he would hand it to the standing uniformed man who, in turn, handed the document back to the owner. At last we had our stamps and were out blinking in the sunlight, boarding the boat. An hour later, we were off…

…And two hours after that, we pulled into the port of Mytilene, the government seat of Lesbos. At first glance it looked like every other small coastal town I’ve seen so far in Turkey…peaceful, white buildings, red roofs. But then a magnificent spire caught my eye, ornately decorated and stretching up above the low skyline of the town, and that was the first moment that I was struck by a sense of not being in Kansas any more. I took a mental note: first observed difference -- churches, not mosques.

Disembarking on Greek soil, we repeated the passport checking experience. It took exactly as long as it had on the other side, and there were exactly the same number of passport checkers. The interior of the building was even the same sickly shade of green. One check in the ‘similarities’ column. There were signs everywhere, but I couldn’t, as of yet, read any of them because of the unusual alphabet. One check for ‘differences’. Fortunately, having graduated from a university famous as much for its fraternities and sororities as its academics has its advantages – I was actually able to sound out some of the Greek letters. Who knew that that knowledge would ever come in handy?

Released from the stifling air of the customs house, we dropped our bags and wandered the tiny streets, struck by the quantity of cafes and the huge numbers of people in them. Also striking was the chic of these places – no classic village cafes, they were hip, modern joints with cool space-age furniture and trance music, or cozy places appointed with luxurious couches, jazz wafting on the breeze. I was struck by how very ‘Western’ it all seemed; how affluent, how hip, how very different to Turkey. The chicest part of Izmir is trying, and will probably get to this level in a few years, but one has the sense of a certain awkwardness, like they are still not used to living like this. Certainly there was more material wealth in evidence…wandering the narrow streets, we discovered boutique after boutique displaying expensive clothes and household goods. And another difference: they were all closed. The siesta, or whatever it is called in Greek, is in effect in this part of the world. Two more checks in the Differences column. And bad luck for us, who wanted to explore the town. We were hungry at this point, and stopped at a bakery for coffee and a pastry. I was surprised by both pastry and coffee: they both seemed distinctly American. The pastry was filled with cinnamon-scented apples, and the coffee was served in an enormous mug and was scandalously weak, tasting more like the milk I put in I than coffee. So little distance covered, I thought, and how far west we have come! Another check in the Differences column.

Our hotel of choice was 10 km outside of the town. We had decided to get there by rented scooters, which we would use for the rest of the weekend to explore the island. We undoubtedly provided an amusing spectacle as we cruised down the coast road with my gigantic pink duffle stashed under Levent’s feet. Things were less beautiful just outside town – against the foot of the hills there were giant concrete supporting walls covered with graffiti. Smokestacks belched black smoke, and mangy street dogs prowled the sides of the roads. Uglier, I thought, than what one generally sees on the Turkish coast. Things took a turn for the better a few kilometers later, and after passing through the village of Pirgi Thermis, we located our hotel. It was a sweet, quiet place, perched on the very edge of the sea, with a beautiful garden of figs and pomegranates, lemons and olives. I loved it immediately. It was a profoundly peaceful, comfortable place, and the owner Iannis did much to make us feel welcome. There was a giant, glassed-in living room/eating area looking onto the sea. There were sets of chess and backgammon, a graceful mix of Turkish and Greek music playing softly in the background…outside was a terrace in different levels, with table tennis tables; there was an outdoor bar and a clay oven, and old, gnarled olive and Cyprus trees with long tables beneath them, a stone’s throw from the water. In the evening, lights in the trees glowed softly and candles flickered on the tables. A tiny, narrow pier jutted out into the water, with a diving board at the end and a ladder to climb back out up. It was, in a word, perfect. I can’t remember ever staying at a hotel that felt so much like the home I wish I had -- so gracious, comfortable and peaceful.

We lingered in the hotel bar for a couple of hours, surveying the visiting college students (there on an archeological dig) quietly playing chess and backgammon. In Turkey I love the ritual of raki – the clear liquid poured into the tall, narrow glasses, the water added, the liquid turning from clear to cloudy. We enjoyed the same ritual with the Greek ouzo, and I reflected that here was another cultural similarity. The Greeks, however, have a longer history than the Turks of embracing alcohol as part of their culture, so it wasn’t surprising that the ouzo seemed mellower than Turkish raki. At any rate, it was far too easy to drink, and the warmth and the company, the music and the sea like gray silk that undulated and shimmered all made us want to linger. Only hunger and an empty ouzo bottle finally drew us from our comfortable chairs and into the nearby village of Pirgi Thermis. There were several restaurants in the village, and not knowing how to differentiate, we went into the first one we saw. Levent had been soaking up Greek like a sponge (how I envy him his linguistic gifts) and immediately began trying it out on Stavros, the tall waiter/owner/guy in charge with the jet black hair pulled back in a pony tail. His efforts were well-received. For at least the third time that day, we were told by a Greek how much they enjoy Turkey and wish they could get there more often; how they have friends over there that they miss. This ran so counter to the widespread lie that Greeks hate Turks and vice versa. I imagine that this propaganda is spread by governments to feed their own agendas; the people are just people, in the end more united by similarity than divided by difference.

We stared at the menu. For a while I got so caught up in trying to sound out the Greek words that I forgot to actually think about what to eat. We discovered that much of the food was the same as Turkish food, the striking difference being the dearth of vegetables. The closest we could get was a tomato salad; otherwise, it was meat and potatoes. Perhaps it is the barrenness of the island and the cost of importing produce that explains this; it nonetheless surprised me, because I had anticipated the same richness of vegetable dishes that is found in nearby Turkey. We ordered pork and fried potatoes. How could we not? In the culinary differences category, pork has to be the biggie. Fill up while we can, we thought. (Levent, suffice it to say, is not a particularly good Muslim in this respect.)

We chowed down on a pile of meat of barbaric proportions, ordered ouzo for the digestion, and invited Stavros to join us for one. He did, and as he did so, called his little daughter over to the table to meet us and practice her English. She was proud and shy, speaking little and finally squirming away to go and play with her friends. Again I was struck by everything that was universal in the scene: parental love and pride and desire to show off the children, the childish shyness. We talked – about Greece, about Turkey, about life on the island, trips to the mainland, the production of ouzo. In addition to being one of Greece’s major olive-oil producing areas, Lesbos is also apparently the capital of ouzo production.

Later, bellies full, we ambled back to the hotel, sleepy and content. An early bedtime was in order, as we had great ambitions for the next day – an expedition on scooter to the far side of the island to visit the birthplace of the poet Sappho. Too bad the map we had didn’t have any kind of a scale on it – and we had no idea what we were in for.

To be continued…


At 4:37 PM, Blogger Hope said...

Lovely Kate! I can't wait to read the rest.

What adventures you are having...

At 6:38 PM, Blogger Kate's Blog said...

Thanks, Hope! I'm so grateful that somebody's still reading...I think everyone else has given up on me by now...thanks for the loyalty; I'll try to reward it by writing more often!

Hope you are write me when you can.


At 2:36 AM, Anonymous Expat^Square said...

No, no... Not everyone has given up on your blog. Although your blog has been inactive for -- what seems like -- an eternity, this dude across the bay from you is still reading, and wondering the rest of this story.

Keep writing more and more often.


At 6:30 PM, Blogger Devi said...

Hi Kate, You've been tagged! Don't worry -- it's just a game! Check out to find out more.
BTW, thanks for writing, I really enjoy your posts.

At 5:00 PM, Blogger Devi said...

woops! my correct blog address is actually
(in reference to the post above).


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