Prosecards from the Edge (of a Continent)

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

Saturday, November 22, 2008

On Distance and Proximity

Now and then you have to get a little distance between yourself and whatever, or whomever, you spend most of your time with. When the familiar becomes too familiar, contempt is hot on its heels...and if you don't safeguard against that, you can count on an extreme counterreaction.

I had done this with my relationship; I realized at some point that I had gone too far down the familiarity path, and (much to both of our great chagrin) I decided that distance and renewed perspective would do me good. I managed this, gradually getting into the habit of fending for myself, physically and emotionally. But one night after a goodly period of solitude, I'm out in the town and coincidentally run into Levent. It was a pleasant surprise to see him, and we whiled away hours and beers catching up on everything. I mentioned at one point that I was planning to get out of the city the following day -- out of the country, in fact -- and taking the ferry to the Greek island of Chios. Our conversation turned into an invitation for him to join me on the adventure, he readily agreed, and thus it was that we found ourselves on my scooter at dawn the following morning, bundled like morphing caterpillars, zooming down the coastal road to Cesme. (For the record, 90 kilometers is a long way to go when you're riding double on a scooter in the early stages of winter.)

The dawn was lovely. The sun climbed up from behind a mountain as we sped by rolling hills and pine forests, still-sleeping cows and fisherman putt-putting out for the day in their tiny wooden boats. Winter is subtle here -- most of the foliage is perennial, there are no brilliant colors to behold, but still there is a change, magnificent in its subtlety. The light is pale, slanted; the wild grass takes on sepia tones; there is a sense of things hunkering down, resting for a spell.

We arrived in Cesme with stiff and frozen fingers and legs, and it was a couple of hours before we got the kinks out and stopped shivering. A bit of shopping in duty-free (oh, how I've come to love duty free, after living in Turkey where the price of booze is only slightly less that the going rate for gold!), and then we were off.

Chios lies a meager 9.5 miles off the Turkish coast; the ferry ride takes about 50 minutes. But things are so different there that you might as well have climbed into a space capsule and shipped off to another galaxy. The waterfront is lined with bars -- impeccably, expensively outfitted bars -- all done in themes. There was the 'nautical theme' bar, with the giant compass on the ceiling and the exquisite ship models adorning the walls; there was the 'vintage sports' theme, with an old wooden boat from the Oxford rowing club on the ceiling, wooden skis, old tennis rackets, and so on; there was the 'ultra-modern' look, everything silver and black leather and dim lighting. Turks have bars; we have lots of them on our waterfront. But they don't have themes. They have music and tables and chairs, and beer in varying degrees of coldness, but that's about it. And the people in Chios! Everywhere, everywhere, everywhere, were young people squeezed into gleaming black leather. I would wager there was more leather and studs on this one strip that in the whole of San Francisco's Castro district. Hordes of these cowhide-and- ripped-denim-wearing young bucks in designer sunglasses screamed up to these glitzy waterfront locales, strutted in, and then whiled away hours over iced coffee, perfecting a look of sophisticated boredom as they swirled the ice cubes in the glass. Iced coffee -- even that struck me as so ooh la la after living in Turkey where the simple glass of tea is pretty much all anyone drinks. All of it screamed to me: 'We are Western. We are wealthy. We have plenty of leisure. We are nothing like our Turkish neighbors. And dammit, we are cool.' Coolness; that place was all about it.

It is odd to travel for such a short distance and feel suddenly so removed from where you were. We sat and wallowed in this sensation over outrageously expensive (to us, who were used to Turkish prices) 5 euro beers (small ones, at that!), and watched the leather-bound come and go. The women, I noticed, were much heftier than Turkish women -- either a testament to their greater leisure and wealth, or to the poverty of vegetables in their island diet.

Walking the streets of town, it was fun doing the mental gymnastics of trying to sound out the Greek words on the signs. Each word successfully deciphered was a small victory, and we managed to work out most of the alphabet's sounds by encountering words we knew (like 'taxi') or by looking at travel agency posters written both in Greek and in English. Later we popped into an 'open 24 hours (sort of)' home cooking place, where I'd ended up on my last trip to Chios. It had been an unexpected find -- I was there until about 11 p.m., drinking retsina and chatting with Dimitrius, the owner, and his loveable friend Marcos (although he didn't speak a word of English and I spoke exactly 2 words of Greek), and then suddenly they turned off the outside light, pulled down the shutters, whipped out a variety of instruments, and I was treated to a night of fantastic, improvised live music, right there in the restaurant, for the exclusive pleasure of the musicians, a couple of their friends, and me. I was crossing my fingers for another spontaneous jam session this time.

Dimitrius recognized me immediately, and was warm and welcoming. Marcos was there, too, big and loveable and giant-hearted as before, giving me a bear hug welcome. I introduced them to Levent, we settled down before giant plates of moussaka, a half liter of retsina served in a tin pitcher, and ate ourselves into a stupor.

Night fell. It got late. We switched to ouzo. Dimitrius and Marcos, it turned out, were not planning to play, because they had taken on the great responsibility of seeing to the drunkenness of a friend who was celebrating his birthday that day. This 'friend', it turned out, who sat at a nearby table and was consuming copious quantities of scotch, was a vehement Turk-hater, and he spent much of the evening making increasingly inflammatory remarks to Levent, while Dimitrius and Marcos invested much energy in calming him down. As the drunkenness progressed, so did the vitriol, and increasingly the man -- Tarnassis -- opted to insult Levent in Greek. At some point we heard malaka - apparently a pretty offensive word in Greek - and that was the last straw. Levent stood up, took the bottle of ouzo over to the other table, poured two glasses, handed one to Tarnassis, and said with a grand flourish and exaggerated politeness, 'a very, very happy birthday to you, my friend!'

This threw Tarnassis totally off balance (not that it would have been difficult at that point), and with glazed and befuddled eyes, he clambered to his feet and, supporting himself alternately on the table and on available shoulders, he beckoned us out onto the dance floor. He managed a couple of shuffling steps, then with exaggerated concentration propped himself on a door frame, fished his car keys out of his pocket, and made for the door, while Marcos lunged after him, arm around his shoulders, attempting to talk him out of his next foolish action of the evening.

That was when we met Stratos. The young, good-looking Greek guy with the tiny stud in one ear and the black shirt with the Chinese dragon, who had been alternately working at his laptop and observing the procedings all evening, moved to our table. In halting English, he apologized for the boorish behavior of his fellow citizen and we got into some small talk, mainly about his work as the owner of a radio station, 'Groovy FM' (I had to laugh at that), and his ambitions of extending into the Turkish market. Our conversation was interspersed with dancing, where we were joined by a rather feisty Greek girl who (according to Stratos) had an enormous thing for him. There was a small group of us on the dance floor. Every time I got up to dance, Stratos would, with jaw-dropping self-assurance, get up, cut in on my dance partner, take my hand, and proceed to dance (badly) with me. I found this hugely amusing, thinking 'good thing the Turk in my company is not your typical Turk', and wondering if Stratos realized that just 10 miles away, the same behavior could easily get him hospitalized -- or worse.

When we sat down at the table to take a break from dancing, Stratos whipped out his laptop, said 'here, have a look at my photos' and set his computer to 'slide show' mode. What came next made me want to crawl under the table with embarrassment. It was a parade of photos of various angles of Stratos, interspersed with photos of various women, a monument to himself -- Stratos' naked chest, close up; Stratos on the beach, oiled up in a tight black swimsuit; Stratos with dark glasses, casually leaning out of his BMW; Stratos on his bed eyeballing the camera with a come-hither look. The photos flashed by, and out of politeness we tried to look, but, equally out of politeness, kept trying not to look...Really, who could sit and look at this stuff, especially when the subject of the photos is sitting there at the table, watching you watch?

The rest of the night proceeded generally like this, with short interludes of dancing, returning to the table for the umpteenth view of the slide show that was still running in a perpetual, agonizing loop, until at last we'd squeezed the last drop of ouzo from the bottle. Eyes fuzzy, and dawn around the corner, we exchanged contact information and made the usual half-hearted pledges to keep in touch now and again.

Two days later, we get an email from Stratos:

Hello my friends levent and kate! How are you? how was your trip
and your first day on tsesme?I am very happy that i met you maybe at a
wrong time but i am sure that at another personal time we could have more fun
and better dancing without the other crazy girl!!!I liked very much your comany
and i hope for the next meeting of us!

It left me wondering, am I reading too much into this? Have I just lived too much and become a little too worldly? Or is he actually hinting at what I think he's hinting at? Which then left me, marveling once again, about very how far ten miles can be.


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