Very few places have moved me or compelled me so strongly to really write a reflection as Turkey. Perhaps it might me the case that I am now open enough to authentically moved or excited by things. My itinerary was largely not touristic but I was visiting Turkey to attend a summer school at Sirince, a small wine village not far from Izmir. There are some specific things that I want to really recollect and build some thoughts on and then maybe I will recollect some sporadic events that seem to pop in my head while I am writing.
First Impression: Izmir Along Ege
Interestingly my first impression of Turkey was not shaped by Istanbul but Izmir. Indeed I took a connecting flight from Istanbul airport, which is beautiful in its own right (Perhaps not as beautiful as Mumbai airport), to Izmir. Bhavleen’s colleague, Zeynep, from Digital Futures (an online voluntary organization) was more than eager to pick me up from the airport. Not only her, her mother was also equally excited to receive me and show me around Izmir. I was, and I am still, in awe and disbelief that they were so excited, and genuinely so, to receive me at the airport. I will introduce them soon. But before that let me say something about reaching Izmir and exiting the Izmir airport.
My flight to Istanbul was on time and I had a connecting flight to Izmir nearly five hours later. I thought to myself, let me check with the airlines, if they can put me on an earlier flight. I thought to myself, its ok if I have to shell some money I will at least get half a day more to see Izmir. After asking around the counters of Turkish Airlines, they were super supportive and kind to put me on the next available flight. To my surprise, this next flight was a freaking gigantic Boeing! I could not believe it. Here I had just taken a stripped down, bare, minimalist (modernists would have loved it), Indigo airlines from Mumbai -where I even paid for food and coffee. And suddenly I am bumped up to a nine row Boeing -and was offered hot sandwich, coffee, and juice. That was that about the flight.
I finally land in Izmir. The toilets in the airport for some genius reason are tiny and can host not more than one or two persons. I don’t know why someone thought it was a good idea. In any case, as I exited the airport to meet with Zeynep a.k.a Ozge and her wonderful mother Dilek, the first thing that you notice is a large array of smokers like I have never seen before, and it seemed nothing less than cultural in Izmir. It was almost like a scene from 70s and 80s anywhere in the world kind of moment, where everyone was smoking in every shot. There was a charm in the way everyone was comfortable with the cigarettes. I soon discovered more about Turkish cigarettes in the summer school and I will say something about later in this memoir.
I met Zeynep and Dilek at around 15:00 and they had an itinerary planned for the day. Including the fact that they will be spending the entire evening taking me around Izmir. I did not resist and went with the flow, with excitement and joy. The big motivation to agree was, not so much because I had a big plan to see in Izmir but, because I had no plans of my own. Any small plan I had was in any case part of the itinerary we discussed on our drive from the airport to the city. The infrastructure in Izmir was smooth, sturdy, and reliant -very European or perhaps even the rich Middle-Eastern countries like.
I did not even check-in and we drove straight to the elevator in Izmir. This elevator is interesting because, it was initiated and funded by a musician who wanted to help people to move around the city. To understand the importance of this, it might be helpful to say something about the geography of Izmir. Izmir is a port city located along the Ege Sea (also known as Aegean Sea) The arc like port edge, or the shores of the city, are lined with steep mountains forming a steep and deep bowl like shape. Any city that has a mountainous setting like Izmir. Would have to primarily negotiate movement against the slopes of the mountains (Vishakhapatnam comes to mind as a direct comparison). Izmir sitting in this bowl makes it difficult for the people to commute or walk up and down the mountain. This was the big motivation for the Jazz musician Dario, to initiate the construction of an urban lift. Even today it is used by the people of the city to move up and down in the neighbourhood. It is however, not just a utilitarian lift, but it is also a viewing deck, a place of coffee and beverages, and lively and festive music lined along the route.
Sidenote: I thought these are wonderful projects for architects to initiate in the city along with conservation and adaptive reuse projects.
We then moved to the labyrinthian old Bazaar -which was nothing short of magical. Spice shops, coffee shops, pide shops, tea (cay pronounced chaai) in curvy shot glasses, kebabs, koftes, sweets, minced meat, carpets, silks, silver, and so on. The bazaar was marked with several semi covered large courtyards or even squares which were all packed with people sipping Turkish coffee (Kahve -pronounced with tooth under the upper lips at the end of the word sounds like caafe) or tea all day long. Turkish coffee is largely a muddy espresso but which certainly is not an espresso. What was equally interesting was not just the coffee but what people do after having coffee. People can read your future after you have had your coffee! Dilek is a fortune-coffee enthusiast and she volunteered to read our fortunes. She pointed at imaginative shapes that this thik coffee had formed after I had finished drinking it. Dilek showed me a feet, a snake, lovers, penguins, birds, etc. Apparently there is a whole online ecosystem where people have given their interpretations of what certain shapes mean. The set of shapes that I saw indicated big changes in my life. Not far from my reality at the moment. But Dilek is generally very hopeful and wilful person. After all she picked up running marathon, duathlon, and triathlon quite late in her adulthood (she is 52 at the moment). So inspiring! Zeynep too is very wilful and happy person who really likes to push her limits and be exited about life in general. She apparently found a PhD opportunity in Israel and I am hoping that everything works out well for her. I do envy so much clarity at such a young age, and I wish I had the same for myself at that age. But my envy is only a sign of her brilliance and composure.
The best part of the day was when the sun was setting and Dilek took us to Deniz-Kent, a beautiful restaurant along the shore. We tried our luck to get a table along the sea and it is here that we met the legendary Mehmet -the model turned waiter turned real-estate broker, and most certainly a wonderful conversationalist. Mehmet informed us that a reservation was cancelled in the last minute and that we can straight away take the table. We thoroughly enjoyed the food and Raki and the unbelievable view of the sea, mountains and as the sun kept setting the gradual shimmering and glowing of Izmir…
The next day, I was supposed to travel to Selcuk to get a bus to Sirince -where the summer school was being conducted. However, I forgot to give the gift I had got for Zeynep so I requested her to meet me in the morning so that I can hand over the gift. She turned the situation around and invited me to visit her grandparents -which is something they do every Sunday. Once again, I readily accepted the invitation and joined them to visit Ozdere, where her grandparents lived. Apparently they were a big fan of Indian tv series -Pavitra Rishta! The most wonderful part of their house was the covered terrace where you can see the Turcuoise Ege and the Samos islands -I was looking at Greece from Turkey! Zeynep’s grandmother was the kindest. She offered us lots of Pide (Pita bread), at least four or five cups of chai with limon (her preference), homemade jams, candies, etc. I also met with two of her aunts who visiting from Istanbul and Germany. One of their dogs fell ill in Ozdere and they were all quite tensed about it. I learned eventually that the dog had to be taken to hospital to be treated. I hope she has recovered by now. One other thing about Ozdere, when you descend from the road towards the coast you will encounter large orange and lemon farms. I did not see the oranges, as it was not the season, but lemons (limon) were massive in size.
This moment / event alone could have been more than worth the trip to Turkey. But there are few more things that stuck with me. Which I will keep posting in the following posts.