Prosecards from the Edge (of a Continent)

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

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Island Sojourn - Part 2

All right, dammit. Let's do this. Here's a tip: I've discovered there's a sort of Murphy's law that applies whenever you label something 'Part 1'. Inevitably you will be hit by a car and fall into a coma or be taken prisoner by eco-terrorists or abducted by aliens with experimental inclinations or gored by a wildebeest -- anything to keep you from writing bloody Part 2. Never, EVER name something Part 1.

Anyway, Part 2:

Saturday morning on Lesbos dawned cool and clear. After a coffee on the shore, we went for a run. I love running, but especially enjoy it when I am in a new location. Exploring a place on foot is really the very best way to get to know it, and the advantage of running (versus walking) is that you can cover more ground. We quickly discovered that Lesbos is rural, rugged and dry, comprised mostly of olive orchards growing on the steep slants of mountains. Much of the island is volcanic, so the overall impression is rather stark. We nearly got lost in the twisting, turning dirt lanes between the olive trees, then found a dirt road heading up, up, up into the was a challenge for my level of non-fitness, but the clean country air did good and it was exhilarating to push the limits. I was struck as we ran by the number of horses, and how beautiful and shiny they were. There are horses aplenty in Izmir -- they pull phaetons, colorful carriages that cruise the waterfront, and sometimes still pull laborers' carts. But the horses of Izmir are poor people's animals. They subsist on the meager grass of the roadway median strip, forage amidst the rubble and trash in the slums on the outside of town. They are poor beasts, smelly and showing all their ribs, perpetually ill-tempered. (Due to hunger or maltreatment, I wonder?) The horses on Lesbos were entirely different -- sleek, fat, lovely; the rich cousins of the Izmir horses. I reflected that this was not a Greek/Turkish thing, but rather a socio-economic reflection: the horses on Lesbos belonged to landowners, whereas those of Izmir belong to people living in hovels and scrabbling to make a living.

We made it up the mountain, lungs burning and hamstrings aching. A marvelous view of the coast, and then it was down, down, down....dirt road turned into paved, turned into village; I admired the lovely whitewashed houses as we descended, their brilliant blue doors making them distinctly Greek...felt a brief pang that so many of the lovely houses in Turkey have been destroyed and replaced by ugly concrete blocks, feeling sad that the rush to the future so often seems to leave aesthetics in the dust.

We arrived at the hotel as cold fingers of wind were beginning to whisper down over the tops of the mountains, and a charcoal cloud momentarily darkened the world. Suddenly, in the snap of a finger, it wasn't summer any more. It was cold. In our room, we surveyed our meager inventory of 'warm' clothes: mine consisted of one long-sleeved T-shirt and a windbreaker. Eek. Still, we'd paid great sums of money for our scooter rentals and weren't about to miss a day's worth of exploring, so we stiffened the upper lip, got bundled up as much as we could, and set off. The sky was relatively clear at that point, and with the sun warming us, it was actually comfortable...we rode for hours, vaguely surprised at how big the island was and how long it took to get from one point to another (there was no scale on the map, and although Iannis had told us it was a big island, we had been told such things before, and found that wherever we were really wasn't so big). But this really was big...after an hour and a half, we found we were only halfway to the far side, where Sappho's birthplace was. But I am nothing if not stubborn, so we decided to continue, however long it might take. We saw millions of olive trees, rugged mountains, sheep. Very few villages, which surprised me. In Turkey, it seems that you are always stumbling over a little village wherever you go, but here was nothing but sweeping landscapes and grazing animals and olives, lots and lots of olives.

The truth is, I began to get a bit bored. But I was determined to get there. So on we scootered.

Three hours later, we arrived. A quiet beach abutted a craggy cliff; a small, winter-vacant town lay dozing and waiting for next season's tourists. A group of young women in black, genuine Lesbians by the looks of them, sat outside at a cafe that looked closed. They seemed to be the sole inhabitants of the town. Steps from the beach, an enormous white statue of Sappho was the only indicator that the poet had ever walked these shores. A flyer on a light pole, weathered and partly torn off, advertised 'DJ Thunderpussy, every Friday and Saturday night.' How times change, I thought...and stay the same.

It was one of those places that you make a pilgrimage to just because of the concept, not because of what there is to see. It was really just another beach down in its post-tourist slumber, a sight repeated thousands of times along any coast in the world. We'd done it, we could check it off the list, and now it was time to go. A ten-minute stop was enough. Besides, there was the matter of the ride back....and it was getting colder by the minute, the clouds more numerous and the wind more aggressive.

There aren't too many details to report from the ride back. Basically it was a long, chilly (and increasingly chillier) pedal-to-the-metal let's-get-home kind of a trip. The scenery was the same as on the way out, although we took a different route. We stopped frequently when the chill became too much. It got dark. We paused at a roadside chapel to watch two elderly women in black get out of their car and light candles and incense, which they placed at the altar. It was a lovely moment, and our last of the day.

The wind started whipping up in earnest; night fell early because of the looming black clouds; the temperature must have dropped 10 degrees. I was chilled to the bone, and after a while started shivering violently. We had to get on a few sections of main road, heavy with traffic and enormous, bellowing trucks that nearly shoved you off the road as they passed and then finished you off with a violent gust of wind. The situation got grim: my arms and hands were frozen, teeth chattering violently, and I was perilously close to not being able to hold on to the handlebars. One gust of wind, one attempt at a quick maneuver could mean a crash, and it wouldn't be pretty. As the kilometers dragged by I dropped my speed until I was nearly crawling. I was so far beyond being in control that it seemed the only safe way to get back was to do it slowly, slowly enough so that if/when I did crash, I wouldn't kill myself. Levent didn't realize how bad my condition was, and sped ahead and out of sight; waited around a corner for me to catch up; started following me and beeped the horn at me when I was going too slowly. It must have seemed strange that I was crawling along at 25 kph, since he was not affected by the cold the way I was...I explained that I simply couldn't go any faster without risking my life, and we continued our struggle homewards. Between the heavy traffic on the main road, the steep curviness of the rural mountain roads, the wind and the drops of rain that were beginning to fall, the frozen arms and hands struggling to hold the scooter straight, it was excruciating. The taste of adventure had lost its savour...I wanted only to be in a warm, dry, well-lit place; I cursed myself and my apparent need for drama in my life.

Four hours later, we pulled into the bumpy stone driveway of the hotel. Peeled ourselves off the scooters. Staggered stiff-legged up the stairs. Climbed clumsily out of wind-chilled clothes. Stood under piping hot water (thank God there was good pressure) until the water seeped into the bones and brought a little life back. Got in bed, under all the blankets we could find. Lay curled together, shivering still, arms clutched tight to chests, trying to still the ever-chattering teeth. An hour later, our bodies decided it was okay to stop shivering. We got dressed as warmly as we could (not very) and went out to find some food. The storm was intensifying.

A dinner of meat and potatoes, mostly, washed down with ouzo, was followed by a trip to the main salon of the hotel, which was brimming with life. College students were everywhere, discussing travels, playing guitar and backgammon, drinking beer and watching the escalating storm. We settled ourselves with our drinks and wondered aloud what the weather would be like in the morning, when our ferry was scheduled to depart. We fell into bed that night exhausted, out like the proverbial light.

Morning dawned dark and rainy. The sea was whipped to a frenzy, and it seemed improbable that ferries would be going anywhere. Over a marvelous breakfast of spanokopita and other delicacies, we discussed the likelihood of getting home that day. It was Sunday, and I had to go back to work the following day.

We packed our bags, balanced them on the scooters and made the trip back into Mytilene. After dropping scooters and bags at the rental place, we inquired about ferries. The answer: a definitive NO. No ferries would be going anywhere today. We might as well get a hotel, because we weren't leaving the island. Which also meant that I would be late for work on Monday.

At the Hotel Poseidon, we wallowed in the luxury of a heater (there was no such thing at the other hotel). Cranking it up to max, we lay in bed and watched the Greek version of 'American Idol', reflecting that silliness is not contained by national borders. Later, on an evening stroll around town, we stopped by an ouzo factory. It first drew our attention with the anise scent that wafted out into the street; we entered to find a lone(ly) proprietor glad of some company, and we stayed and chatted for a while, about ouzo, about Greece and Turkey, about the weather. Of course we did not leave empty-handed.

We had dinner in Lesbos' oldest taverna, a lovely place of high ceilings, chandeliers, dark wood, and excellent food. Still, vegetables were not in great abundance. Carafes of retsina were dirt cheap, and we enjoyed the rare opportunity to drink wine at an affordable price. There is significant wine production in Turkey, but sadly the government taxes it so highly that it is really a luxury to drink it. The cheapest wine, which is often pretty wretched (as cheapest wines tend to be) generally goes for no less than 7 YTL, which is nearly the same number of USD. Most of the wines on the shelf in the market go for 15 YTL or more, which makes wine more of a special occasion drink than a daily accompaniment to a meal.

After dinner we called it an early night and went to bed, wondering what the status of the ferries would be in the morning. I had calculated that I would be able to get to work for at least half of my work day if the ferry left as planned in the morning. Unfortunately, the news in the morning was not good: the ferry was not leaving. The first information we got was that no ferries were leaving -- at all. Later, they informed us that there would be one ferry, but an hour and a half later than the originally scheduled one, and -- this was the kicker -- this ferry would be going to Ayvalık, not Foça (from whence we'd come). Ayvalık is much closer to Lesbos than Foça, an hour's ferry ride versus the two-hour one from Foça. Unfortunately, Ayvalık is also a two-hour bus ride from Izmir, instead of the one-hour ride from Foça. The total en route time adds up the same for both itineraries; the problem is getting from Ayvalık to Izmir. There are buses, but infrequent; every couple of hours, maybe. Because the departure time had been made two hours later (10 a.m. instead of 8 a.m.), I was already losing a lot more of my Monday; if there was no convenient bus from Ayvalık, it could mean all of Monday gone. I should have been delighted to get out of work for a day, but the truth is that I was more worried than excited. I had been looking forward to the day; I had lots of things planned to do with the kids. I was worried about them missing these things; I was worried about making a bad impression on administration for letting my personal life interfere with my job performance after only a month on the job. I was worried about not having left a substitute lesson plan, and even -- briefly -- that the kids would like the substitute much better than me. I've always thought of myself as easygoing, but maybe there is an small control freak in me, after all.

Anyway, it was settled: the Lesbos port authority would absolutely not allow any ferries to make the trip to Foça, so Ayvalık it was. On the ride to Ayvalık, sheer random stupid coincidence found me sitting next to the grandmother of one of my students. This we discovered in the course of our conversation. It was embarrasing to tell her that I was her granddaughter's teacher, and yet here I was on a ferry from Greece when I should have been teaching. I made my excuses and found another seat.

Ayvalık is a lovely town, and is located in one of Turkey's biggest olive-oil producing regions. The moment we got through customs and were out in the town, I took a deep, happy breath. The air was crisp and clean; everywhere there were fruit and vegetable vendors, carefully stacking their colorful wares. Restaurants were getting ready to open for the lunch hour, and the heavenly scent of roasting lamb hung on the air. We found a çorbacı - a soup place -- and decided it would be precisely the right thing in the chilly weather. We feasted on soul-satisfying bowl of red mercimek (lentil) soup seasoned with cumin and hot pepper, fresh, saucer-shaped pide bread hot from the stone oven, and colorful appetizers of vegetables prepared in various ways (my favorite has to be şakşuka, a garlicky roasted eggplant and tomato combo, rich with olive oil and topped with tart idea of bliss. I was happy, I realized between bites, to be back home. I was happy to be in Turkey and pleased that I thought of it as home. In all my nearly five years in Germany, never once had I thought, 'hey, I'm home.' But here it comes naturally, and when I'm away I feel a comforting love and longing for my adopted country.

Bellies full, we turned our attention to how to get home. It turned out that, as feared, there were no buses to Izmir for another few hours. At this point I had written off ever getting to work; it was impossible, since it was already noon. What I was wondering was how late at night it would be before we got back. Public buses were a no-go, so we tracked down the tour guide who had originally offered us a lift back on their bus. Her group was still in Ayvalık, and as luck would have it, was just about to depart. They offered to take us with them, no charge, the only catch being that we had to detour to Foça so that some of the passengers could retrieve their cars. Foça is a detour off the main road to Izmir; round trip it would cost an extra 45 minutes. Still, it seemed the simplest, and the best part of all was that the bus we were on was going to go directly through our neighborhood -- even drop us at the end of our street! Such amazing opportunity doesn't often knock twice. We went with it.

We arrived in the early evening; dropping our bags in the entrance hall, I thought for the umpteenth time how good it was good to be home. I reflected how every trip seems to turn into an adventure, and wondered briefly if I seek these things out. I meditated a little on the Greece / Turkey issue. I had been actively looking for similarities and differences as I toured Lesbos, trying to arrive at some definitive comparison. It was clear, though, that one island, one day -- and, I reflected, maybe even whole countries and a lifetime --were not enough to arrive at this definitive. The fixed idea is the danger; it is too easy to paint people and cultures with broad brushstrokes, to make dangerous generalizations that lead us to hatred or false pride that damages our sensitivity to nuance, to the myriad different and beautiful ways of being. It closes us up to change and possibility. Forget the definitive, I murmured, drifting off to sleep, the words of an old Indigo Girls song (appropriately, the first and most famous lesbian duo of my generation) echoing in my head..."there's more than just one answer to these questions pointing me in a crooked line... and the less I seek my source for some definitive....the closer I am to fine."


At 2:19 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I enjoy reading about your adventures. Such a long way from those boring days in our cubicles at Evoke . . . .

Happy holidays and a joyful 2008 to you.


At 5:03 PM, Blogger Hope said...

Hey Kate!

I finally had the opportunity to read the 2nd part and I loved it. I don't know what is best, reading about such a fascinating place or your observations to it all. At any rate, keep it all up. I would love to read about how you live in a basically muslim world as a foreigner, so there you go - future story!

Take care Kate!



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