Putting It In Context

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Way back last June I came to Turkey, indeed continental Eurasia for the very first time, I had ostensibly signed up for a month long teaching assignment in provincial north-central Anatolia. I was fortunate enough to arrive early in the month, bang in the middle of the Gezi Park protests: More insightful than dangerous I hasten to add. Several days later I was on a coach to Merzifon, a medium sized town an hour or so away from the Black Sea and host to a large military and police presence.

Above the town of Amasya on the site of an old fortress with fellow teachers from Ahi Kolegi in Merzifon.

Above the town of Amasya on the site of an old fortress with fellow teachers from Ahi Kolegi in Merzifon. June, 2013.

We were able to use the town as a platform to explore some of the surrounding towns and villages which included Samsun, where Atatürk rose to prominence quelling the rebellious Anatolian Greeks. We also visited Amasya, renowned for a number of stone tombs carved into the mountains there, a relic of an ancient line of Greek monarchs (a little known dynasty I recall reading). Turkey has such a wealth of archaeological sites and attendant history that it is quite dizzying. I am liable to confuse some facts.

After the teaching assignment in Merzifon I was free to travel for a few weeks in a counter-clockwise direction (my choice) around the perimeter of the country, or a rough approximation thereof. From Merzifon I caught a coach to Samsun and hence to the city of Trabzon a little further East. At this point the Pontic mountains, which extend from Georgia to the east, meet the Black Sea (Karadeniz in Turkish). Whilst there I felt compelled to visit a few of the local landmarks including the house of a Greek businessman who was expelled during the ‘Population Exchange’ years and then given over to the state and gifted to Atatürk himself. Like all things associated with the man it was treated more like a grotto or shrine rather than a monument. A large Turkish flag enveloped much of the living room and photography was forbidden (although I managed a few on my phone).

Ataturk's state-repossessed mansion in Trabzon

Ataturk’s state-repossessed mansion in Trabzon. July 2013.

I am partly of Greek extract and my reflex emotion was one of indignation but those were tumultuous times and I cannot appreciate the full scope of the socio-political landscape at a time when Imperial Europe was at loggerheads and the Old Ottoman Empire was in decline. The other place I visited was Sümela monastery set high in those coastal mountains amongst hill slopes of pines and plantations of hazelnut. It was on that leg of the journey, in a local tour bus, that I fell into conversation with a Turkish girl who was visiting from Istanbul.

Nestling high in the foothills of the Pontic Range near the Black Sea city of Trabzon is this abandoned monastery, now a major tourism attraction.

Nestling high in the foothills of the Pontic Range near the Black Sea city of Trabzon is this abandoned monastery, now a major tourism attraction. July 2013.

She was supposed to have met with some friends but they had pulled out. Her name was Ayşe (you pronounce the ş ‘sh’). She explained that she had been born of Turkish parents in France and educated both there, the UK and in the US. She was obviously pretty brainy. We exchanged details and I have kept in contact with her subsequently.

My trip to Istanbul this time was in large part to see her. She worked in Istanbul for a French bank who finance projects in the regions. She told me that she had considered working in aid and development and had wanted to go to Afghanistan but her parents had dissuaded her, concerned for her well-being, somewhat understandably. All the same she has an impressive resume of places visited: Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Malaysia and no doubt other places she never mentioned.

Awaiting a return ferry from Kadakoy Iskelesi. From L to R: Dave, Tim, Ayse (resident friend), Brett, Me (yellow shirt)

Awaiting a return ferry from Kadakoy Iskelesi. From L to R: Dave, Tim, Ayse (resident friend), Brett, Me (yellow shirt)

We met for an informal meal on my first night at the hostel and the following day she played the role of tour guide to me and three other gents from the hostel. We met at the Iskelesi (ferry terminal) near Kabitaş and caught a ferry across to Kadikӧy on the Asian side of the Bosphorus. I think she was a little taken aback by the entourage but she was a good host and we enjoyed a tour of what was probably the best little stretch of street markets that I can recall in the city: everything from fishmongers to cheese sellers, fruit sellers and luxury pastry shops.

A few nights later the two of us met for dinner in an Iranian restaurant that was recommended by one of the two Iranian guys who worked behind the reception desk at the Stray Cat. It came as some surprise that she knew of the place as soon as I mentioned it, having gone there on a recommendation of an Iranian colleague of hers. I have to say it was good food – very tender chicken and garnished rice – and at a very reasonable price. (The restaurant is called Reyhun, near the Galatasaray Lisesi.) I was a bit ashamed to arrive sweaty and unkempt from an afternoon of walking the ancient Theodosian city walls, whilst she was clean and respectable in a light cotton dress, hair combed and nails polished. I did my best to refresh in the bathroom. We had eaten out once already on the evening I had arrived but that had been a bit rushed. This time we had a bit more time to chat.

Ayşe came across as she had before as being rather a private person but nonetheless quietly observant with an understated and self-effacing sense of humour. She seemed to work a ridiculous schedule and confessed that she suffered insomnia. Like so many of us living between different countries I detected a tinge of loneliness. She spoke of having enjoyed Istanbul but that she wanted to return to Europe and Belgium specifically. More than once she emphasized that she was French first and Turkish second. Somewhat modestly she talked of the sacrifice her parents had made for her and her brother: uneducated villagers who had worked the ‘shitty jobs’ in France so that they could have the opportunity to get a further education and the fruits thereof.

Coincidentally they were staying with her at that very moment in time now that they had retired and more able to travel and spend time back in their country of origin. They had just returned from their ancestral hometowns near Gaziantep/Karamanmaraş, I can’t remember which. Perhaps they would settle back in Turkey Ayşe speculated. This would be the last time I would see Ayşe on this particular trip. She talked of settling back in Europe – Belgium or France perhaps – but she didn’t know when she would be permitted to move again. “I love my job but I can’t carry on at this pace forever” she confided in me. I knew exactly what she was getting at. Back in the UK I had never settled properly and went through periodic episodes of what I can only describe as a depression. It’s more complicated than that but suffice to say that I don’t know where the heck I do belong!

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