Talking Turkey

What day is it? Tuesday, Thursday? I think it’s Wednesday, but what does any of that matter. None of the usual indicators are identifying time. No sense of a sigh on Friday, no market on Saturday, no alarm for work on Monday. One day eases into another on this side of the planet.


The day might be murky but the location isn’t. I am not in Columbia, California. Last I remember, there was no call to prayer from a mosque at 5am. I don’t recall old thick women covered in shawls selling nuts by the side of the road. No men playing backgammon in the streets of Columbia, no one smoking from a hookah, no one carrying a tray of tea in six glasses. And that flag over there, the red one with the half moon and star, never flew above Peg’s home or from Tater’s guitar in Columbia.


This is Turkey. My feet are on the soil of Turkey, a country that is 7000 miles away from the Taco Truck in the Grocery Outlet parking lot. We arrived yesterday morning by ferry from the Greek island of Kos, a mere 15 miles away. Lately the weather gods have been shining all their might on us, the temperature in the low 70s and the skies a cloudless blue. The sea was smooth and flat and reflective as a—cliché alert! cliché alert!—as a mirror. The voices on the ferry were not speaking English. Gone are the days of Rome and Athens with all those Americans saying, “Oh, Bob, do we have to climb all those steps! My god, where’s the elevator”; and, “No more Holland cruises for me, the food’s too bland.” They are gone, and gone is the walking aria that is the Italian language. Now it’s all rough Greek and Turkey, rougher Russian and Croat and Polish, and the roughest of all, that barbed-wire language, German.


After an hour on the mirror-like sea we pulled into the harbor of Bodrum, Turkey. The scene is beautiful: a castle, dozens of wooden sailing ships bending into the wind, beaches on both sides of the harbor, a skyline of minarets and the red Turkish flag. We land. I step off the boat and onto the cement of Turkey and yes, it’s just cement but I feel a rush of the profound truth that this is Turkey, that I am in Turkey, that this distant land is the land known as Turkey. The truth also hits me that our trip around the world has taken this tiny step eastward this Tuesday morning—or is it Wednesday?—but a giant step into a new culture. This is not Stockholm or Vienna or Venice, all places that are America with a different set of clothes. No, we are moving into a world where toilets are the squat variety, where you negotiate the price of your hotel room, where women are shrouded, where the exhaust is thick, where beggars now pull on your sleeve.


Or are we? What is Turkey? In truth I have a vague notion of this culture, a set of expectations that likely came from some movie in my adolescence: rough, a bit squalid, the men with dark eyes and criminal intent, their prisons a nightmare. Ok, I’m exaggerating—Istanbul, after all, was a finalist for the 2020 Olympics—but I really do expect the drivers to be more manic and the bathrooms to be more mildewy. I expect the merchants on the streets and the bazaars to be more aggressive. I expect more pollution. I expect Islam to cover up the women with tighter shawls and to fill up the air with the lovely call to prayer five times a day. I expect Turkey to be a slightly more tattered Greece.


We’ll see.


For now we pass through customs. The man stamps our passports—a thrill for Liam—and tells us to go to the next window to buy our visa. Instead I pull them out, the visas I bought and copied in my office at Columbia College six months ago. He pauses, he looks at me as if to say, “Who buys their visa six months ahead of time? What kind of organized freak are you? Is your closet organized by color, are the bills in your wallet organized by denomination, do you clip your nose hairs each morning, in your dishwasher do you put forks in one square and knives in another and spoons divided into big spoons and little spoons?”


We pass through. We are in Turkey. With our packs bowing us forward we walk past the cheap stalls near the port selling two pairs of underwear for 5 euros and turn upward toward the town—or what we imagine is the town. Truth is that we land in Bodrum without a hotel reservation, without a place to plop down these crucifixes of backpacks by 11:20am. Instead, we wander, and it is a mistake. Liam is not a burro. I am. I can walk for hours laden down with my earthly possessions, but Liam is still a little boy with a strange sense of energy: he can play soccer for five hours straight but give him a pack and a mission to walk and he sags after five minutes. Still, we walk, and walk, stopping only to change money and to buy a SIM card for my iPhone for internet in Turkey. (Reminder #22,417 that ATT is the scourge of the earth. Internet throughout the world is cheap, available, reliable—except for ATT in America.)


We’re hoping to turn a corner and find Charming Pension Road—where all lodging is clean and quaint with a touch of the Turk: perhaps some arches, some rugs, a smiling family greeting us with tea. Instead we turn down one alley and see a pension sign that is missing a few letters. We check it out. The room is small and dark and dank, something from the hull of a ship, and the man quickly drops the price from 120 to 80 lira ($60 to $40). We walk on. The misery of Liam presses down upon the load of my backpack, and so I enter another pension. The man puts down his cigarette and shrugs, shows us a room that smacks of YMCA in the Bowery, and on we go. Another: Three beds that sag with a sliver of a sea view, and I say “yes” and Liam says “No” and out the door we go.


By now it’s 1pm and we’re close to the bazaar. May as well check it out, so up the stairs we stagger with our camels’ humps and are met right away with “Madam! Madam! Stop for scarf! Sir, you need the pant we has the pant! Boy, you like the football, what you like, the AC Milan or the Man City, you Messi yes boy, come we have the Messi!” They are in our face, hands on forearms, a slight tug of body that makes me touch my wallet by instinct: still there. I look at Liam and he is Atlas holding up the globe, his face contorted in an agony that says, “I will never forget this, Father. Never!” To shift the motion of the world I have us stop at a breakfast café in the bazaar to sit, to rest, to eat. Dolora gives me a look of, “Seriously? This is where you’re having us eat? Why not pick a table in a meatpacking plant?” I drink a very weak coffee and Liam and I eat a cheese omelet that is splattered flat as if fallen from a great height. It’s in the category of food, I believe, and that’s enough for me. Meanwhile all around us are the calls of merchants to “buy buy buy, two for two euro! two for two euro!”—and the very tall white Nordic/Slavic families that are huddled close do the most amazing thing: they stop and they buy. The world is full of mystery.


We leave. We pass through a bus station that is mostly small vans packed tight, and I think, Ah, we’re now in the realm of the private van, are we. We wander and wander, still in search of a Quaint Pension Row that never apparently never crossed the Aegean. Another bleak pension, and another, until we find ourselves along the sea where hotels spring up. One has a fortuitous name—Artemis—so there we go, there we inspect the room, there we are pleased at the harbor view just out our window, and there we drop our bags with a thud that trembles the thin floor. While waiting for the room to be cleaned we are offered a beer on the house, and suddenly I’m enjoying this life: me with a cold Turkish beer, me with a son playing backgammon with a wife. The man who serves us is very sweet, is likely gay, and I pray to all the saints I’ve neglected my whole life to please look over this man, to please keep abuse away from him and to let love into his life, to give him California here in Bodrum and to push Texas away.


A short time later we are swimming in the Aegean Sea that is twenty feet from our hotel’s front door. It is luscious. I float on my back with ease, without any need to flutter my arms, and for this brief moment all the unending preoccupations of my mind—where are we staying in Istanbul? how do we get to Ephesus? we have to get our visas for Sri Lanka—drift off me and sink to the seabed for all the fish to devour.


I am in Turkey. Above me is a clear sky and over there is a hotel room that seems pretty nice. Beyond that I know nothing. I am Odysseus, the play thing of the gods, who have something in store for me and my family here along the Aegean where Odysseus himself sailed a few thousand years ago. As if on cue I see a blind man—Cyclops!—and then a beautiful young woman on a beach recliner who might be going topless: the Sirens!


Later I walk the streets of Bodrum alone. Mainly I’m on a recognizance to learn about buses and rental cars and where to go and when and how and why. Along the way I am observing this new land called Turkey: the men with thick moustaches, the children playing soccer in a school yard, the high number of hair salons for men (that’s odd), the Muslim call for prayer that has no effect on the merchants who crowd the narrow alleys. My walk is long, and on this walk I pass two Starbucks and one Domino’s Pizza—three opportunities for me to reflect on the absurdity of the world. I also walk along the harbor where men have backed up their fishing boats and are selling their catch of fish right off the back end. The fish business is brisk. I stand off to the side and watch grandmothers in dark shawls haggling over squid.


And now it is morning. Now is the time to pack up and rent a car and pray to the gods that Turkish drivers are reasonable. The skies remain blue and the temperature remains t-shirt and shorts. We’re off to somewhere for three or four days and then return to Bodrum for an overnight bus to Istanbul—a city once called Byzantium, a city once called Constantinople.


But that’s far far far ahead.


Let the great world spin.



  1. Jim Toner

    Jim Toner

    Thanks for reading, Rod. How’s life at the college?

  2. rod harris

    wonderful reading about your adventures….!!

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